‘I think it’s probably been the biggest experiment in the history of mankind, where we’ve taken a billion students and asked them to do what they’re learning online.’
How have recent events impacted university students starting their course this year? Marketing and admission teams will be working hard to provide a positive onboarding experience. What can we learn from the international student sector to support domestic students taking the plunge remotely. Carl Hodler caught up with Tony Lee, HE digital disruption strategist, to find out how university marketing teams can help students navigate their way through the current crisis.
You can also read the transcript below.
Transcript: Interview with Tony Lee
Q) Tony, thanks very much for joining us today. For the benefit of those who don’t know you or the kind of work that you’ve been involved with in higher education, could you share a quick intro to yourself and tell us about your work in digital marketing please?
A) So, I first started in digital student recruitment in around 2007. And the first project was, I think, called University Choice TV. This was in the very early days. Google had just completed its first acquisition of YouTube, there were no YouTubers and universities were not using video as a main channel for recruiting students. And we launched a platform called University Choice TV, which lived off the back of YouTube, really. We started to acquire student-generated content and compile that onto the platform. The platform then evolved and became Global Campus. That was the first time I think anybody had tried. It was a painful attempt to aggregate all of the courses onto a single website where you could search based upon entry requirements. I then went on into university partnerships. Great bunch of people there, at that time it was still in its infancy and it was about building out the digital platform and offering before they became the really great education provider that they are today. That was the first web site that really fully utilised Facebook. We were the first education provider to completely integrate the Facebook platform into our student facing web site. We were the first advertiser on Facebook. Again, it seems crazy because everyone uses Facebook now and the duopoly of Google. But back then, it was seen as a kind of adventurous thing to do. I then went on and set up the digital marketing capability within Study Group. I was there for about four years working with universities in Australia, the US and across the world. So, I’ve come across most elements of digital marketing, in student recruitment, and now I continue to consult in the field.
Q) With the pandemic, all the changes that it’s forcing on to universities and its impact on the student experience, where do you see marketing and student-created video content helping students to navigate their way through these times?
A) Well, I think it’s probably been the biggest experiment in the history of mankind, where we’ve taken a billion students and asked them to do what they’re learning online. And, we’ve seen that happen in a matter of days and months. A lot of that, I think, is going to stick with us. You know, I now have Facetime calls with my elderly relatives, and that would never have happened before. They would never have jumped on a Zoom call for a Friday afternoon get together. So I think we’ve all adapted the way that we use technology and in particular face-to-face video technology. I think that for marketeers, it’s actually a fantastic time because we’ve got these tools available to us and suddenly that resistance to using them has disappeared. Everybody’s on digital, everybody’s on Facetime and Zoom and all those kind of platforms. We’ve all become much more familiar with this kind of scenario. I mean, ordinarily, if you’d asked me if we could have a chat, we would be sitting in a Starbucks rather than on Zoom.
Q) Yeah absolutely, without a doubt. Bearing that in mind, and the way we’re all using digital tools differently, what do you think the best tactics are to support this year’s intake? How can marketing teams help students overcome some of the challenges they’re facing and perceive they’re facing?
A) I think students have been using digital tools to determine where they’re going to study. And they’ve been doing research across a number of websites, they’ve been using social media and YouTube and looking at videos. And so I think the challenges remain the same, which is to find a true value proposition and to articulate that value proposition in an authentic manner. I would underline the word authentic. And, I think authentic comes from peer-to-peer communication. It comes from students talking about the experiences that they’ve had. A lot of it now is going to be about what additional support is being offered. I mean, I think we’re in this bizarre time where blended learning is here and, there is an opportunity to communicate to students about the service that they’re going to receive, what the experience is going to be like. They’re looking to be shown rather than told what their experience is going to be. Video and authentic student-generated content are absolutely key in being able to deliver that message.
Q) Where do you see student storytelling fitting into this? You mentioned the importance of authenticity. What kind of student stories do you think are going to need to be amplified over the coming months that will reassure, guide or educate?
A) I think it comes back to the traditional art of storytelling. Irrespective of the medium there needs to be a story. Quite often as marketers, we forget that and we try to be like MTV pushing out promotional videos that don’t have a beginning, middle or end. And I think that people are looking for real, authentic stories about how people overcome adversity. Starting at university, leaving your home, being in a new city; all of these things are challenging at the best of times and can be downright frightening right now. And I think that people want to see how other people have overcome those challenges in a very real sense. And I think that institutions that are offering support and guidance won’t be able to showcase that. What better way to showcase this than those people telling the stories of their first-hand experiences? We’ve always been able to do it. It’s just the technology now is making it much easier to both create and record the stories. And also to distribute the stories and ensure that the right person hears the right story at the right time.
Q) Do you think the current situation with a pandemic has made this more of a priority? Or is it about the same as it was?
A) I think it’s more of a priority now because people are more unsure and therefore, they need more reassurance. But, equally we’re all living in a similar situation which the international students have found themselves in for a long time, which is that you’re remote. So, a student that’s maybe sitting in Hong Kong, thinking of coming to the UK for the first time, can’t pop along to the open day. So, they’ve always wanted to have that sort of remote access to content. And I think quite often now, as we’ve seen during this lockdown, domestic students are facing the same challenges, that online can be the only source of information and that you want to do a lot of that research from the comfort of your own home.
Q) That’s really interesting. With your experience of international students, what are the typical things that have really resonated with that audience that can help marketing teams who are communicating with the domestic market?
A) I think it’s the micro needs. At one end of the street, you’ve got the education outcome, students really interested in what’s going to happen next. What does success look like? I’m going to get this great degree and then I’m going to get an internship. I’m going to get a great job. And I really want to understand what the full journey looks like. But then also within that, I want to understand whether I can walk to the 7-Eleven from my accommodation and whether they sell my favourite noodles I’ve grown up eating. Oh, and by the way, can I bring my favourite pillow? You know, there are these very real human needs that need to be answered as well as the big things. I think that universities sometimes forget that. You know, I’ve got this lovely picture of a sunny day on a campus with three students holding books to their chests, standing near a tree. It’s a lovely part of the campus with the words, we are very welcoming to international students. And there’s just nothing authentic about it. It doesn’t tell you anything about the real difference between an urban campus and a rural campus where the only way to get there is a bus that only runs until 7 o clock in the evening or whatever it might be. That sort of realism, not getting people to jump through hoops. You know, they’ve got Google Maps and they can work out Uber in the region or where they can get pizza delivery. But, it’s probably better to just authentically tell them rather than make them do lots and lots of extra research.
Q) And lastly, if it was easy to capture this type of content from students, the internet would be flooded with it. What lessons have you learned about engaging students to share stories and share them in a way that’s going to be meaningful to their peers?
A) In the very early days of UCTV, one of the first things we did is we thought, right, let’s use money. So, we put out a five thousand pound prize for the student that could create content that got the most views on YouTube. And we thought this is going to be a great way to generate huge amounts of user generated content, which it did. I then had to give a five thousand pound cheque to a very inventive young lady who had just tanked her video to read ‘female student, trampolining in underwear’. It turns out that basically those search terms had meant her video got more views than any other. There’s a really good lesson in how not to generate student content. It was totally fine, she was perfectly well dressed, she just knew how to work the algorithms.
So I’ve tried lots of different ways to stimulate content. I think that bite-sized and authentic is probably the most useful way. And I think that really it’s around purpose. There’s been some great things in the sector like the ‘We are international’ and ‘You are welcome here’ on the back of Brexit and Trump where people really feel that they need to tell people that international students are welcome. And there’s been a load of great content around people looking after each other’s mental health and caring for one another. So I find that purpose-driven content works. We’re all good people and we do want to help one another. And quite often that can be the motivating factor that leads to the most authentic content. I think the challenge that we face as marketeers is being honest with ourselves about what is the authentic, unique value proposition of one place of study over another. And then how do we get the students to help tell that story?
Fantastic, Tony. Thank you so much for sharing those insights with us today.